The Torah for Dummies


by Arthur Kurzweil




About the Author

Arthur Kurzweil is one of the most popular lecturers and teachers on the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah, and other topics of Jewish interest in synagogues and at other Jewish gatherings across the United States and Canada. He is a direct descendant of Rabbi Chaim Yosef Gottlieb (1790–1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630), and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530–1572), three illustrious and revered rabbis and teachers of the Torah.

Arthur is the author of Kabbalah For Dummies (Wiley) and On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom (Jossey-Bass). He’s also the author of the best-selling classic From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History (Jossey-Bass), coeditor of The Hadassah Jewish Family Book of Health and Wellness (Jossey-Bass), and editor of Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass). He also wrote My Generations: A Course in Jewish Family History (Behrman House), which is used in synagogue schools across America.

Arthur is the recipient of the Distinguished Humanitarian Award from the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at The Ohio State University for his unique contributions to the field of Jewish education. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies for his trailblazing work in the field of Jewish genealogy.

A member of the Society of American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Arthur frequently performs his one-man show “Searching for God in a Magic Shop,” in which he blends the performance of magic tricks with a serious discussion of Jewish theological ideas. Arthur lives with his wife, Bobby, in a suburb of New York City.

Visit Arthur’s web site at



For Bobby

“He must have loved me so muchto send me someone as fine as you.”


Author’s Acknowledgments

My goal in these acknowledgments is to recognize those people who have helped me, in many different ways, to think I’m qualified to write this book. Who am I to write a book on such a sacred subject as the Torah? And who helped me have the nerve to claim I have the qualifications? I think I know. But before I acknowledge them, I take full responsibility for this book. Any errors are mine.

Many years ago, when my children were young, I asked my teacher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, for some advice: How do I teach my children the Torah? He told me to speak with them about the most difficult and abstract spiritual ideas I knew to exist. I took his advice, and the result has been extraordinary. For the past quarter of a century, I have had the deepest religious discussions, sharing amazing words of Torah with my three children. My decision to enroll my children full time in schools of Torah study (with full secular studies as well) created three knowledgeable Torah teachers surrounding me daily. The experience has been mind-blowing — for me. My Torah education has unfolded every day from the process of learning from my children, each of whom is my teacher. I have insisted upon it.

My greatest thanks, appreciation, love and gratitude go to:

Miriam Kurzweil: You will surely see how important your help with this book has been because there is clear evidence of your hard work, knowledge of the Torah, and eager, unfailing assistance on so many of these pages. I hope and pray you also know how precious, deep, intimate, and profound our countless hours of conversations have been to me over the years. You’re awesome.

Moshe Kurzweil: If I were asked 20 years ago to dream my wildest dreams and express what I would hope for in a son, I would have described the person you’ve become. You’re a spiritual searcher and teacher, kind and articulate, gentle, strong, and wise. You and I can speak about God forever. And I hope we will. As I write this, you are in the Holy Land for a year of advanced Torah study. Please keep teaching me.

Malya Kurzweil: As you know, when a question of Torah comes up among some of our family members, the first words spoken are, “Let’s ask Malya.” You have deservedly earned the reputation of having Torah knowledge that is broad and deep and so often profound. And you have proven to so many people that your talents as a teacher of Torah are on the highest level. How rare and priceless have your words of Torah been for me. You are a treasure.

Heartfelt thanks are also due to:

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: You are the Light of our generation. I’m just one of so many who simply don’t know where we would be without you. If I have one wish for this book it is that its readers will seek out your books and learn from your endless wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.

Saul Kurzweil: My extraordinary father. You personify the spirit of the Talmud. You were always in my mind as I wrote this book and as I tried to anticipate your rich flow of deep and important questions.

Evelyn Kurzweil: My beautiful mother. You personify the words of Hillel when he taught the essence of the Torah, and you are a role model of patience, kindness, empathy, and refinement. Your Hebrew name, Zisil, captures you perfectly.

My editors: Georgette Beatty, Mike Lewis, Elizabeth Rea, and Rabbi Alan Kay. Georgette, your firm and wise guidance, your delicious laughter, and your genuine warmth made the whole process an uplifting one. Mike, thank you for your vision and for your confidence in me. Elizabeth, every question, suggestion, and insight from you enhanced this book. Alan, it is no surprise that your participation inspired me to be more sensitive to others; you are a rare gem. Because I have been in the world of publishing for 30 years, I know the kind of magic that talented editors perform. The four of you are the best!

My editorial consultants: Rebecca Allen — If there’s an editorial job to do, you’re the one for me. Alan Zoldan — When I need creative help, you’re first on my list.

My ancestors: Rabbi Chaim Yosef Gottlieb (1790–1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630), Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1530–1572), Reb Avraham Abusch Kurzweil, Rabbi Shlomo Zalke Rosenvasser, Rabbi Asher Yeshia Gottlieb, Reb Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Gottlieb, and Reb Yehuda Yaakov Kurzweil. May your descendants continue to invest their lives in the study of Torah.

My teachers: Reb Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham Zimmerman of Hibbing, MN, Reb Eliezer Nehemiah HaCohen of Montreal, Ram Dass, Reb Eliezer ben Shlomo of Sighet, Rabbi Shlomo ben Benzion Halberstam (1907–2000), Rabbi Menachem Mendel ben Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1902–1994), Rabbi Meshullam Zalman ben Shlomo HaKohen Schachter-Shalomi, Reb Yaakov Yehuda ben Yitzchak Zelig Halevi v’Yehudis Siegel, Yosef Puglisi HaMalamud HaGadol, and Rabbi Israel Nobel of East Meadow.

Ken Kurzweil: My brother and friend. You’re always there when I need you, with patience and endless support.

Ruth Rothwax: With my love and gratitude. Thanks for your belief in me and for the advice and support you always give freely.

My wife’s family, especially the inspirational Estelle and Eugene Ferkauf, Howie and Liz Kleinberg, Josh Kleinberg and Donna LaGatta, Gal Dor, and Orna Dor. Special thanks and heartfelt love to Rachel Dor: I will always be grateful for the very first moment we met, and I am truly impressed by your fertile mind, moved by your sweet soul, and inspired by your thirst for the delicious waters of Torah learning.

Rabbi Simcha Prombaum: Loving friend, gifted Torah teacher, and cherished advisor. I consult you almost daily on all things large and small.

Ed Rothfarb: In every way an artist, fellow seeker, loving friend for nearly 50 years. We went to Hebrew school together, walked to grade school together, and here we are, still celebrating life together and continuing to share our search for spiritual wisdom.

Richard Carlow: Source of infinite joy and delight, loving friend for over40 years. I can’t imagine life without you.

Robin Kahn Bauer: Loving and loyal friend, and fellow seeker for over 40 years.

Rick Blum: Loving friend, Torah buddy, and confidant for over 40 years. Your spiritual journey and love of Torah is a true inspiration to me.

Gary Eisenberg: My spiritual brother. No words can even begin. From the moment we met, it was love at first sight.

Marc Felix: Loving friend, joined at our soul’s root.

Marcia Cohen: Loving friend for over 45 years. You’ve taught me about spiritual devotion, crazy wisdom, and the pure joy of lifelong friendship.

Margy-Ruth Davis: Special friend, Jewish leader, and role model.

Zsuzsa Barta: Trusted friend and beautiful cousin. I knew you and began loving you the moment I met you on that train platform in Budapest.

Dr. Helen Hecht: Loving friend, gifted healer, extraordinary soul.

Reb Tuvia Frazer: Thank you for inviting me in.

Alan Rinzler: Friend, teacher, soul-brother.

Rashi and Shabbos, who sang as I wrote.

Bobby Dor Kurzweil: My wife, my life, my best friend and chevrusa.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and permitted us to reach this moment.

Arthur Kurzweil(Avraham Abba ben Chaim Shaul v’Zisil)Great Neck, New York, October 2007


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our Dummies online registration form located at

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Georgette Beatty

Acquisitions Editor: Michael Lewis

Senior Copy Editor: Elizabeth Rea

Editorial Program Coordinator: Erin Calligan Mooney

Technical Editor: Rabbi Alan Kay

Editorial Manager: Michelle Hacker

Editorial Assistants: Joe Niesen, Leeann Harney

Cover Photo: © Fred de Noyelle/Godong/Corbis

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Kristie Rees

Layout and Graphics: Reuben W. Davis, Melissa K. Jester, Christine Williams

Special Art: Pam Tanzey

Anniversary Logo Design: Richard Pacifico

Proofreaders: Laura Albert, John Greenough, Caitie Kelly, Glenn McMullen

Indexer: Cheryl Duksta

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Joyce Pepple, Acquisitions Director, Consumer Dummies

Kristin A. Cocks, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Michael Spring, Vice President and Publisher, Travel

Kelly Regan, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Gerry Fahey, Vice President of Production Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services




About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : The Torah 101

Chapter 1: Beginning with Torah Basics

Introducing God, the Torah’s Author

Examining the Torah’s Important Elements

Taking One Torah Book at a Time

Living Life According to the Torah

Connecting the Torah to Judaism

Chapter 2: Encountering God, the Ultimate Author

Enter God, Stage Center: Creating a New World (And People to Fill It)

Calling God by Many Names in the Torah

Getting to Know the Nature of God through the Torah

Growing Closer to God with the Torah’s Help

Communicating Directly with God

Chapter 3: Examining the Treasures of the Torah

A Little History: Moses and the Torah

Understanding the Torah’s Structure

Getting a Grip on What the Torah Isn’t

Considering the Torah’s Commandments

Part II : One by One: The Books of the Torah

Chapter 4: “In the Beginning”: The Book of Genesis

Before You Begin: Approaching the Story of Creation

Get Going: God Creates the World

It Takes Two: Adam and Eve

Sibling Rivalry: Cain and Abel

When It Rains, It Pours: Noah and the Flood

Reach for the Sky: The Tower of Babel

Father Figure: The Story of Abraham

The Birth and Binding of Isaac

The Story of Jacob

Introducing Joseph, Jacob’s Favorite Son

Chapter 5: “These Are the Names”: The Book of Exodus

The Rise of a New Pharaoh and the Early Life of Moses

Get Moving! The Exodus from Egypt

What a Trip: Journeying through the Wilderness

Arriving at Mount Sinai

Aaron and the Incident of the Golden Calf

Building a Movable Worship Tent

Chapter 6: “And He Called”: The Book of Leviticus

Drawing Near to God: The Laws of Sacrifices

Surveying the Priestly Duties

The Laws of Purity and Impurity

Chapter 7: “In the Wilderness”: The Book of Numbers

Counting the Children of Israel

Looking at a Few Important Laws

Witnessing Some Wild Events in the Desert

Chapter 8: “Words”: The Book of Deuteronomy

The First Discourse of Moses

The Second Discourse of Moses

The Final Discourse of Moses

Part III : The Torah: An Operating Manual for Planet Earth

Chapter 9: Keeping Your Personal Behavior in Line with the Torah

Defining the Essence of the Torah

Be a Mentsch: Some Basic Torah Principles about Personal Behavior

Look Sharp! Dressing Appropriately

Everything Is Relative: The Torah’s Family Rules

All You Need Is (A Lot More than) Love: Treating Everyone Fairly

Showing Kindness to Furry Friends

Chapter 10: Living by the Word of the Torah in the Community

It’s Universal: The Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah

Doing Better Business

Property Rights: What’s Mine is Mine, What’s Yours Is Yours

Order in the Court — the Torah Way

Part IV : The Importance of the Torah in Judaism

Chapter 11: Observing the Holy Days in Torah Time

Breaking Down Time According to the Torah

Shabbat: Observing the Holiest of Holy Days

Celebrating Holy Days Appearing in the Torah

Chapter 12: Following Jewish Customs According to the Torah

Torah Traditions Related to the Cycle of Life

It’s a Sign! Surveying Some Well-Known Jewish Symbols

But Is It Kosher? Jewish Eating Practices

Chapter 13: Walking through the Torah Synagogue Service

Understanding the Basic Customs of Torah Readings

Preparing for the Torah Service

Taking the Torah Scroll from Its Holy Closet

Following the Torah Scroll Procession

Undressing the Torah Scroll

Receiving the Honor of Blessing the Holy Words

The Big Event: Reading the Torah Out Loud

Concluding the Torah Service

Chapter 14: The Final Commandment: Writing a Torah Scroll

God Said So! The Law behind Writing a Torah Scroll

Decisions, Decisions: Hiring a Scribe versus Completing a Torah Yourself

Understanding the Ground Rules of Torah Writing

Using the Right Torah Writing Supplies

A Little TLC: Proper Torah Care, Repair, and Burial

Chapter 15: Always Up for Discussion: Analyzing the Torah

Grasping the Infinite Possibilities of Interpreting the Torah

Entering the Garden of Torah Interpretation

Examining the “Bible Codes”: Are They Legit?

Chapter 16: Studying the Torah with Translations, Commentaries, and Other Resources

Reading a Translation of the Torah

Getting Help from Great Classic and Contemporary Commentators

Using Other Resources to Study the Torah

Part V : The Part of Tens

Chapter 17: The Ten Commandments According to the Torah

“I Am the Lord Your God . . .”

“You Shall Not Recognize Other Gods before Me . . .”

“You Shall Not Take the Name of the Lord Your God in Vain . . .”

“Remember the Sabbath Day, to Keep It Holy . . .”

“Honor Your Father and Your Mother . . .”

“You Shall Not Murder”

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery”

“You Shall Not Steal”

“You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor”

“You Shall Not Covet Your Neighbor’s House . . .”

Chapter 18: Ten Frequently Misunderstood Quotes from the Torah

“And God Said, Let Us Make Man in Our Image, after Our Likeness”

“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

“Two by Two They Came to Noah into the Ark, Male and Female”

“God Is a Man of War”

“An Eye for Eye, a Tooth for Tooth . . .”

“You Shall Not Lie with a Man as with a Woman: It Is an Abomination”

“You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself”

“For the Lord Thy God Is a Jealous God”

“For You Are a People Holy to the Lord Your God . . .”

“You Must Not Make Your Brother Pay Interest . . .”

Part VI : Appendixes

Appendix A: A Glossary of Torah Terms and Names

Appendix B: The 248 Positive Commandments in the Torah

Relating to God

The Torah

The Symbols and Signs of Judaism


Love and Human Relations

The Poor and Unfortunate

The Treatment of Non–Family Members

Marriage, Divorce, and Family

Holy Days, Times, and Seasons

Dietary Laws

Business Practices

The Treatment of Employees, Servants, and Slaves

Promises, Vows, and Oaths

The Sabbatical and Jubilee Years

The Courts and Court Procedures

Injuries and Damages

Property and Related Rights

Punishment and Restitution




The Firstborn

The Priesthood and Holy Temple Workers

Tithes and Taxes

The Temple, the Sanctuary, and Sacred Objects

Offerings and Sacrifices

Ritual Purity and Impurity

Lepers and Leprosy

The King



Appendix C: The 365 Negative Commandments in the Torah

Relating to God


Love and Human Relations

The Poor and Unfortunate

The Treatment of Non–Family Members

Marriage, Divorce, and Family

Forbidden Sexual Relations

Holy Days, Times, and Seasons

Dietary Laws

Business Practices

The Treatment of Employees, Servants, and Slaves

Promises, Vows, and Oaths

The Sabbatical and Jubilee Years

The Courts and Court Procedures

Injuries and Damages

Property and Related Rights

Criminal Laws

Punishment and Restitution



Agriculture and Animal Husbandry


The Firstborn

The Priesthood and Holy Temple Workers

Tithes and Taxes

The Temple, the Sanctuary, and Sacred Objects

Offerings and Sacrifices

Lepers and Leprosy

The King